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Book Review: Winifred Lamb: Aegean Prehistorian and Museum Curator,

December 13, 2018

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Winifred Lamb: Aegean Prehistorian and Museum Curator, by David W. J. Gill, published by Archaeopress, 2018. Paperback (₤30.00) and Ebook (₤16.00), 340pp.

Review by Caroline J. Tully.

Winifred Lamb (1894–1963) was an Aegean and Anatolian archaeologist, an academic, and keeper of Greek and Roman antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. In both her archaeological fieldwork and her museum curation Lamb was a pioneer. At a time when British women were not customarily engaged in archaeological fieldwork, Lamb excavated at Mycenae under Alan Wace, later becoming the deputy director. In subsequent years she would go on to excavations at Sparta and the mound of Vardaroftsa near Salonica, eventually directing her own excavations at Thermi on Lesbos, on Chios, and at Kusura in western Anatolia. Lamb was also involved in the development of the British Schools at Athens and Ankara.

As keeper of Greek and Roman antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Lamb filled a position usually given to men. She developed the classical holdings of the museum, and created a new Prehistoric Gallery in which were displayed finds from British work in the Aegean and on Cyprus. Lamb brought the Fitzwilliam’s collection to the attention of an international audience through her publications, particularly two volumes of the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum. As a result of her wealthy background, she contributed financially to the department, donated many objects to the collection, and encouraged her relatives and contacts to become benefactors.

Gill’s biography situates Lamb in the midst of many famous names from early twentieth century British, American and European archaeology in Greece, and later Anatolia. Alan Wace has already been mentioned, Lamb was also very friendly with John Beazley, she worked with Arthur Woodward, Piet de Jong, Robert Carr Bosanquet, Richard M. Dawkins, consulted Arthur Evans, Percy Gardner, knew Joan Evans, Carl Blegen, Richard Seager, Leonard Woolley, Wilhelm Dörpfeld, John L. Myres, A. B. Cook, Jane Ellen Harrison, James G. Frazer, Vere Gordon Childe, and even Andromache Melas, daughter of Heinrich Schliemann. As well as working amongst what, these days, are considered famous classicists, prehistorians and archaeologists, Lamb also frequented celebrity sites such as Mycenae, where she was assigned the palace, previously excavated by Christos Tsountas in 1886 and re-examined by Gerhart Rodenwaldt in 1914. She was responsible for study and publication of the frescoes, particularly those from the Ramp House which had been excavated by Schliemann in 1876 – surely an archaeological opportunity to be admired and envied.

The book begins with Chapter 1 focusing on the Lamb Family, new moneyed colliers and textile mill owners from the north-east of England and Manchester, and Winifred’s early years. In Chapter 2 the story moves to Cambridge University and the study of Classics, Newnham College, and the beginnings of Lamb’s archaeological fieldwork. Chapter 3 focuses on naval intelligence, looking at Winifred’s work for the Admiralty during the First World War, her assumption of the role of honorary keeper at the Fitzwilliam Museum, important bequests such as the Ricketts and Shannon Collection, and Lamb’s first visit to Greece. In Chapter 4 we hear about her first year in Athens, travels in Greece, and life at the British School. Chapter 5 focuses on prehistory and the Fitzwilliam Museum, examines Lamb’s work at the museum under the directorship of Sydney Cockerell, and the purchase of the controversial Fitzwilliam Goddess, an expensive Minoan marble figurine for the Fitzwilliam Museum that turned out to be a forgery. Chapter 6 focuses on Lamb’s archaeological excavations in Greece and her travels to Turkey. In Chapter 7 we return again to the Fitzwilliam Museum and the development of the classical collections, particularly Greek and Roman bronzes, Greek pottery, classical gems and jewellery, and Etruscan and Italian antiquities. Winifred travels to the Eastern Aegean, Lesbos and Chios in Chapter 8, and in Chapter 9 we hear about her early visits to Anatolia, excavation at Kusara, and research on Anatolian archaeology. Chapter 10 focuses on the period of the Second World War, the fall of Greece and Crete, Lamb’s work in Turkey and at the BBC, and her injury in a German air raid over north London. Chapter 11 concerns the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara, Lamb’s continuing work at the Fitzwilliam Museum, her role as a benefactor, and her final years and legacy.      

Despite Lamb being involved in exciting archaeological activities, knowing famous scholars, and performing the creative activity of curatorship of interesting and often rare ancient artefacts, Lamb herself does not come across as an interesting subject. Winifred Lamb was obviously intelligent, she did important things, she was a pioneer, but in this biography – which makes copious use of her papers, diaries, letters, photograph albums, reports, and friend May Herford’s diaries – she fails to actually be interesting. The overall impression is of a character in an Enid Blyton story. Although Winifred did many pioneering and adventurous activities, the biography comes across as a story of “the mild adventures of an archaeology student.” This may be because Lamb was wealthy and privileged and therefore did not encounter any adversity that she needed to heroically overcome; however, other archaeologists, such as Arthur Evans, were wealthy. It may be because there is no interesting personal intrigue in the biography. Winifred seems to interact with everyone in a sensible and chaste manner, she does not seem to have deep thoughts, and everything works out well for her, so there is no stimulation of extreme emotional responses in the reader. 

Gill’s biography of Winifred Lamb provides us with everything one would want to know about her and more, but the question is: do we want to know it? Is Winifred Lamb worth knowing about? The answer is, yes, she deserves to be known, but she pales in comparison to other Modernists and their relationship with Hellenism – again, this may be because Winifred comes across as having played it safe. In fact, the most interesting aspects of the book are not about Winifred herself, but about antiquities, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University, other archaeologists, and the British foreign schools. The book is therefore an important contribution to the histories of British archaeology in Greece and Anatolia, and of the Fitzwilliam Museum. It would certainly be a useful reference for researching the early history of British archaeology in Greece and Anatolia, but as a biography one would not read it for inspiration or pleasure. For someone as unremarkable as Winifred Lamb, it is an extremely long book. I cannot help comparing (possibly unfairly) Lamb’s story with that of Gertrude Bell – also wealthy and privileged – but whose life was characterised by utterly gob-smacking bravery and independence. One could also compare Lamb to Margaret A. Murray, whose legacy continues today in both archaeological and alternative religion circles. Winifred Lamb: Aegean Prehistorian and Museum Curator is an admirably and minutely researched work of biography but as a character, Winifred Lamb fails to intrigue this reviewer.



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